AUGUSTA – President Bush signed into law Friday port security legislation authored by U.S. Sen. Susan Collins of Maine that will help prevent terrorists from sneaking a nuclear, chemical or germ weapon inside one of the 11 million containers that come into the country each year.
“We’re going to protect our ports. We’re going to defend this homeland, and we’re going to win this war on terror,” Bush said.
“This is a major step forward in strengthening our homeland security,” Collins said in an interview after the bill signing ceremony which she attended at the White House. “It doesn’t solve all of the related port security problems, like rail security for example, but it is very significant legislation.”
The measure had the bipartisan support of all four members of Maine’s congressional delegation, though both Democratic representatives also noted the bill should be considered a first step in protecting the nation’s ports.
The SAFE Port Act authorizes the development of high-tech inspection equipment so customs agents can check cargo containers for dangerous materials without having to open them. It also requires radiation-detection technology at 22 of the nation’s busiest ports – none of which are in Maine – by the end of next year.
The bill codifies the Container Security Initiative, which deploys U.S. inspectors to dozens of foreign ports on five continents where they can screen cargo bound for the United States. It also codifies the Customs Trade Partnership Against Terrorism, a joint public-private sector initiative in which private shippers agree to improve their own security measures and in return can receive benefits, including expedited clearance through U.S. ports.
The act requires the Department of Homeland Security to establish a plan to speed the resumption of trade in the event of a terrorist attack on a U.S. port or waterway.
“This bill makes clear that the federal government has the authority to clear waterways, identify cleanup equipment and re-establish the flow of commerce following a terrorist attack,” the president said.
Congress approved the bill two weeks ago, one of its last acts before lawmakers left to campaign for the Nov. 7 midterm elections in which national security, the war in Iraq and terrorism are expected to be major issues.
U.S. Rep. Tom Allen, D-Maine, praised Collins for managing the legislation in the Senate and in the conference committee that resolved differences between the House and Senate versions of the bill.
“This is significant and important legislation and I am glad it is now law,” he said. “I would have preferred a bill that had higher standards on how many containers are searched and inspected, but, on balance, it is a good step forward.”
Republican U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe of Maine said the measure does improve port security, which is crucial for both national security and a strong economy.
“This comprehensive legislation addresses many of our long standing vulnerabilities by increasing cargo container inspections,” she said. “We have built on the foundation of maritime security legislation passed in 2002 and taken steps to properly fund, implement, and enhance security measures to counter emerging threats around the globe.”
U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud, a Democrat, also praised the legislation. But he noted the measure only authorizes funding for various security measures and leaves the actual funding to future legislation.
“While this bill takes necessary steps forward, like increasing cargo screening and boosting security standards, it’s important that Congress properly fund these new initiatives so that national security gains can truly be realized,” he said. “We must get our homeland security personnel the tools they need to keep our country safe and I will continue to work with my colleagues toward that goal.”
Collins said funding the programs will be the challenge future congresses must meet. For example, she said, the measure authorizes $400 million a year in grants for port security projects including training of port staff, but the money for those programs has to be appropriated in future spending bills.
“There is no question that this legislation will give us a significant enhancement of port security,” said Jeff Monroe, Portland Transportation Director. “No matter how much new technology you have, you have to have the trained personnel to operate that equipment. That is why the training grants in this legislation is so important.”
Monroe said the new law sets a uniform standard of security that all ports will eventually have to follow, whether it is Portland or Searsport or Eastport. He said the legislation also builds on security procedures already in place, like the program that inspects containers before they arrive at a Maine port.
“We already have a preliminary screening location, and that is in Halifax, Nova Scotia,” he said. He explained that no port in Maine can take the large container vessels that cross the oceans. So those vessels go to Halifax first where the contents are transferred to smaller ships that can then enter the smaller ports such as in Portland.
“When those containers come in to Halifax, they are looked at before they are put on a ship bound for Maine. So there is already one screening before they get here,” Monroe said.
Members of the state Homeland Security Task Force say the legislation will be a topic of their meeting next month when they also will discuss recommendations for the new state Legislature to consider in January.
“This is important legislation,” said state Sen. Ethan Strimling, D-Portland. “We need to look at what it does for port security in Maine and how that all fits in with our recommendations.”
Strimling said he is concerned that Congress may not provide the funding for the training and equipment needed for port security. He pointed out that there have been significant cuts in federal funds allocated to the states for homeland security in the last few years.
State Sen. David Hastings, R-Fryeburg, who also is on the state task force, said the port security legislation helps fill an identified security problem that came up during task force hearings.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.